Saturday, January 31, 2009

Wau is Wow!

Earlier this week I spent 3 days setting up a new program in the "city" of Wau which is the capital of Western Bar El Ghazal state. Bar El Ghazal means "river of the gazelle" - pretty, no? Below are some pictures from the trip.

I have to say, it is pretty disconcerting when your plane is about to land and you can see two crashed planes just next to the dirt airstrip...

Wau was one of the last places to be handed over to the Government of Southern Sudan after the signing of the CPA. There are more arabs in Wau and people speak and read Arabic (rather than Juba Arabic which is a mixture of arabic and bari, one of the local languages, and is spoken throughout the rest of the south). Most of people who fled during the war from Wau went to Khartoum rather than Uganda or Kenya, and most of the returnees are therefore from Khartoum.

Joint Integrated Unit gate (JIU is the combined army division with personnel and commanders from both the north's army and the SPLA).

Crashed Iraqi Airlines plane a little farther away from the airport

People who saw me taking pictures and wanted their picture taken. All three of them were smiling, joking, and very happy, but when i was going to actually take the picture they straightened up and put a very stern look on their faces. Normal in Southern Sudan because people think it seems more formal. Don't know if you can see it, but the man has the v-shaped markings of his tribe scarred on his forehead.

Cows being hearded across the bridge from the Eastern Bank of the river Jur into Wau town.

Brickmaking on the banks of the river Jur - doesn't it look like they're building pyramids?

View from Wau River Lodge where I stayed

In Juba, most of the fences around people's property are made of bamboo. In Wau, bamboo is not widely available, so people weave fences out of grass.

Random sculpture of an ear of corn at one of the roundabouts in town

Such a positive and inspirational message, no?

Instead of boda bodas (motorbikes), Wau has rickshaws (pronounced "rakshas") which are really the same tuk tuks you find in India. There are swarms of them all over the place!

All in all Wau was fantastic, and was a nice break from Juba. It's great to get out in the field and get your hands dirty (literally - the place is covered in dust!)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hope. Uncynical.

For me, the inauguration ceremony was beautiful. I will probably never forget watching the most important event in America's political system and feeling truly humbled and full of awe. For those of you who know me, I'm not exactly the type to wave flags around singing the star spangled banner and proclaming the United States to be the best country in the world. But yesterday I felt proud of my country. My country. It even sounds strange for me to write out, let alone say. For much of my late teens and early twenties I was disgusted and disillusioned by the actions of the US government and wanted to distance myself. The ignorance and indifference of many Americans to what exists outside their borders contributed to the curent state of the world and I wanted no part of it. Part of the reason I ended up in the career I have (besides getting to travel around the world which is just wicked) is that access to products, services and information that will make people healthier is a global field - it goes beyond the hemming and hawing of domestic politics and can be applied anywhere. So in order to escape I happily left my dreams of working for the State Department behind and embraced my new identity as a citizen of the world.

Fast forward five years later to watching the 44th Presidential Inauguration at the US Consulate in Juba, Southern Sudan.

To me, the most beautiful thing about the inauguration was a point so completely missed by the US media coverage but picked up immediately those of us watching CNN in Juba. It was those few moments where the Obamas walked the Bushes down the Capitol steps to said goodbye making the phrase "transfer of power" literal that struck everyone the most here. Because RW is right - in the "real" world things like this just don't happen (seriously people, go to that link and read the brief post. now. it's what i want to say here but much better).

A peaceful transfer of power is taken for granted in the US but seems like a fairy tale, an ideal that can't exist, for so many people in the world. When Obama said, "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist" it drove home that he knew that he was talking about. He understands that elsewhere in the world people die, dreams are shattered, and nations crumble because of men with large power and small minds who decide to hold their fellow citizens hostage to feed their own ego and own lust for money and power.

But it is sure nice to think it possible for more people to share the hope and joy that exists in the US and there *might* be a point, after all, to people trying to make the world a better place.

Tears rolled down my face when I watched that man speak because I finally realized that I have the right to hope, and always did have that right. I have the right to hope and I refuse to accept the cynical view that my hope is merely being taken in by the rhetoric of a well oiled political machine. I refuse to believe that it is naive to want so badly for the wrongs done over the past 8 years to be undone and for the world to be cleaner, healthier, gentler, better, than it was before that I will actually spend my life working towards that goal. I claim my right to believe for once that maybe, just maybe, world leaders can eventually internalize the statement "know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy."

Of course one man can't just skip around sprinkling magical fairy dust and solve these problems - it will take 8 years and more. But there's nothing like a spark of hope at the start and let's hope that momentum will help with the rest. There is no reason for the Obama Administration to change their campaign slogan now that he is in office: Yes. We. Can.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Signs, signs, everywhere there's signs

Ever since I have arrived back in Juba, everything has meaning. Everything has a sign. Sorry for getting all New-Age-Trippy on you, but some things you just can't ignore. For instance, following seeing an owl while out for walk back in New York over the holidays, driving home from dinner last night with Simba coming face to face with an owl sitting in the middle of a road, only flying away when our vehicle got about 20 feet away. After we got home I tried to figure out what kind of Owl it was. Based on its coloring (grey and white with some black) and size (about a foot high), and compared to the other owls that live in the area of Sudan I am in, there's nothing else it can be except the Northern White-faced Owl.
I also tried to look up some of the different things that the owl represents because in many cultures when animals appear to you in a memorable or unusual way the universe is trying to tell you something. Anyway, it gives me an excuse to reflect :) After some searching on the dear interwebs, Simba thought a passage about awareness of the past and past lives (reincarnation theme) was particularly poignant for him:
For the one beside whom Owl Journeys, there will be an innate understanding of the recurring cycle of Life, Death and Rebirth. Often times the Owl individual will have very intense past-life connections and memories. These will either be subtle nuances that draw them to places and individuals to whom they feel an immediate bond, or the memories of lives previously experienced will be brimming so close to the surface that they will often surface as very vivid dreams and conscious recollections. Equally, it is also quite likely that this same gift for seeing/feeling other lifetimes led will be transmitted to being able to offer insight into the past lives of Others, affording assistance in the understanding of Lessons learned, those still needing learning, and any "karmic" balances left unchecked. This is a fine line however, as the challenge here for the Owl Soul is to not become so engrossed by memories and fascination with lifetimes past that they lose sight of their ~Now,~ for although the past serves as a reminder of where we have previously walked, the soul lessons we have learned and the connections we have made, the focus of the Soul must always be in going forward and embracing with the enthusiasm and trust of an innocent child, the here and ~Now.~
But for me it was a section about expending energy in multiple directions (shape shifting theme) that struck a chord:

With the Owl in particular, shape-shifting ability is closely linked with Lunar Magic since this beautiful creature is sister to the Moon. In observing the phases of the Moon, we witness ever shifting and changing cycles that effect all within the domain of Luna, including the inhale and exhale of the Ocean`s waves. Much like their Animal Totem, those with Owl as an animal ally will shift and transform themselves like the waxing and waning phases of the moon and the ebb and flow of the ocean`s tides. It isn’t so much that their emotions are like shifting, restless sands as that they are always partially attuned to the calls of many different planes and energies. Obviously, if this tendency to be completely open and receptive is not monitored, some measure of protection taken to guard against becoming drained or distracted, such heightened sensitivity can lead to mental, emotional or physical exhaustion. Yet when the delicate balance between grounding and receptivity is found and practiced, the Owl Soul takes flight into a higher form of awareness, intuition and Light.

The decision alone to live and work in Juba meant that I was giving up the ability to have balance in my life as a whole - I knew coming here that work would be the biggest priority and everything else would have to wait. But even with that in mind, I know it is possible to still maintain some sense of calm instead of completely letting the whirlwind of the world blow me around. But this is far from easy, and I certainly don't have the support I need to do that. I was so hurt when my boss told me she believes I sometimes put my personal life over my work when after working 7 days a week for 4 week straight in November and December, I decided to take a much needed break from writing a proposal on a Sunday to spend 3 hours at the pool. Ouch. If taking 3 hours off on a Sunday after working 27 days straight means I'm "putting my personal life over my work life" then so be it. Giving in to Simba being worried that I was too stressed and depressed and not taking care of myself should not lead to that response.

It is obviously not enough that I have been here working my ass off for the past year and four months. Will it ever be enough? I need to be able to set boundaries for myself, stick to them, and be satisfied with the consequences when other people don't agree with them.
And I need to decide how to define "enough" for me. Enough with a capital E comes in August when my contract is up. I will not extend, but move on, as I should.

But in the meantime, defining "enough" is easier said than done.

Any suggestions?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Abandoned Christmas Trees

It's the time of year in New York where the lamp posts on every street corner are piled high with discarded christmas trees.
The distinct pine scent makes it downright pleasant to walk down the street! By the way, there is an entire website dedicated to discarded christmas trees. Check out the one of the tree being crushed by an SUV. As a series these are hilarious! Or maybe I've proven to be even more easily amused than usual.

This year's holiday season has been peppered by comments about the "global financial crisis" which is a result of the "US economic downturn" catalyzed by the "collapse" of the "subprime mortgage market." These catch phrases are on everyone's lips now, and being back in the US after being completely removed from the major events of Lehman Brothers, the major bailouts, etc, it quite startling. It's like I've landed into a society with a completely different mindset. Sure, based on the economy I revised my short term investment strategy, but because I'm not about to retire, and do not own a home, and am not in an industry where I am in danger of being imminently laid off, all of this recession business was not a daily topic of conversation.

Well for the past few weeks it has been.

What will the impact be on the funding for international development programs in developing countries? The verdict is still out, but many of the guesses are pessimistic. The general consensus is that it will probably take about a year to catch up, based on how budgets are drawn up and how money is allocated, both in the US Congress and other governments. But the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria will be affected because their funding is based on pledges from other countries, foundations, etc. Will these entities be able to honor their pledges? Maybe this year, but what about next year? Will the US experience another period of backlash from people asking the question why should money be flowing out to support other people while we have plenty to do here at home?

With money becoming tighter, donors will be even more focused than in the past on accountability to the aid recipients, whether they are NGOs or governments. It will be even more important to make sure funds are allocated and used wisely. This is a good thing. However, countries have pledged to meet certain milestones, Millennium Development Goals, to measure progress. The vast majority of the world is already behind on these, and will now have to try to meet them with fewer resources.

This past year we caught a glimpse of how the World Food Program (WFP) was affected at the sharp increase in cost of food. The same amount of money purchased less food, so in many areas they were forced to either limit the kind of nutritional supplements they provided to people enrolled in their program, or leave areas all together. Millions and millions of people moved below the poverty line as a result of the increase in food prices.

With increasing scrutiny on the types of loans being given, many micro-lending institutions will be threatened and small business loans will be much harder to obtain (this can be positive or negative - people will no longer be pushed by lenders to take on risks that they cannot afford, but then again these same lenders will be more paranoid about extending credit to those people who may not have a credit history).

The World Bank has pledged "several" billion dollars over the next three years to help temper the impact of the crisis around the world. This is based on the premise that, among other things, as the wealthier investors and countries have less wealth to invest, they will cut out the portions that are invested in infrastructure, natural resources, etc in Africa. Apparently commodity prices are falling, which hurts the poorest countries who are the ones exporting the goods and therefore receiving less for their goods.

As for health, there is no greater investment than investing in the health and social sectors. Here are some reasons:
1. Investing in human capital/resources can increase productivity and stimulate economies.
2. You want social stability? Provide equitable access to basic health care. In most developing countries, access to health care tops people's lists of concerns that include food and shelter.
3. Ignorance, stigma and discrimination on the parts of governments and employers against people living with HIV and AIDS in the 1980's and 90's meant that a large part of the workforce in sub-saharan Africa was healthy. Employers were hiring 2 people for every 1 place in their companies because it was likely that 1 of the 2 would be working at limited productivity and eventually pass away from AIDS-related illnesses. Failure to focus funds on HIV prevention now means that countries will spend exponentially more money on care and treatment when people are already infected and affected.

These are my thoughts anyway, I am by NO means an expert on anything related to economics, so I'd be interested to hear your opinions and ideas.